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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Working together in the safest way possible to keep justice going

I’d like to start by paying tribute to the dedication and hard work of our staff, the judiciary, professional court users including legal professionals, the advice sector, contractors, and everyone who is supporting the work of our courts and tribunals during the pandemic – your efforts are not unnoticed and I appreciate all that you are doing to keep the justice system functioning during the pandemic.

Meeting the challenge

There is no disputing the challenges that the country is facing, and I am not here to convince you otherwise. As those responsible for ensuring our justice system continues, we have the added responsibility to some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They must have the confidence that justice continues to be served – whether remotely or, if necessary, in person at a court or tribunal.

Whatever your role in the smooth-running of the justice system, it’s incumbent on us to work together in the safest way possible to keep justice going for every complainant, victim, witness and defendant. Justice cannot stop.

Providing a safe place to work

I know we are all concerned about the current coronavirus situation – and that is why I take the safety of our courts very seriously. We follow all Public Health and Government COVID-secure guidelines and have put measures in place to keep all court and tribunal users safe. This is under constant review through our risk assessment process – when Government/Public Health guidance changes our measures are updated; an approach which is endorsed by Public Health England and Public Health Wales. HMCTS staff and others inspect our policies and their implementation to ensure actions arising from these risk assessments are put in place and being followed.

We’ve introduced social distancing measures in all our buildings, regular cleaning and, where appropriate, plexiglass screens to name just a few mitigations. We’re supporting the Lord Chief Justice’s message about remote hearings.

Where a judge or magistrate has deemed it necessary and in the interests of justice, you should come to court if you are required to do so. If you need support, please just bring one person with you – such as a friend or family member. From the moment that you arrive, our buildings are safe for those that need to use them. You’re asked to always rigorously follow hands-face-space guidance – all our buildings display clear signage that support this requirement. Everyone has a personal responsibility to follow the guidance in our buildings, just as they do everywhere else in the community.

Staying vigilant

We are very far from complacent - we listen to suggestions for improvements, and routinely review standards and implementation, but we only implement additional measures where they are supported by public health officials and other experts and will make a difference to the safety of our buildings. This has included updating our advice on close contact in line with the change to the NHS Test and Trace definition. You can request the risk assessment from your local court or tribunal and we’ve published an escalation route for professional court users if you have any concerns – we want to hear from you.

Sharing information

Where we are notified of positive (or suspected) cases in any of our buildings – whether that be a member of our staff or other court users – we initiate our own contact-tracing alongside the NHS test and trace service. Where there are two or more cases, we conduct an investigation. In line with what is required of us, we alert local authority public health teams whenever the threshold for reporting is reached and act on their advice. This means that our policies, and how they are implemented at an operational level, are repeatedly reviewed by multiple experts who are independent of HMCTS.

We also update local stakeholders and court users of the situation, while maintaining the confidentiality of those directly affected. Updates may contain a combination of the following pieces of information, depending upon the circumstances of each incident:

  • Date we were informed of suspected incidents and/or positive cases.
  • Date those involved were last in the building (only if it is not shared in a way/with other information which could lead to identification).
  • Areas of the building in which the individuals concerned have worked for a sustained period of time and/or where they are likely to have come into contact with the public (only if it is not shared in a way/with other information which could lead to identification).
  • Action taken, for example if a section 16 clean was completed, or if part or all the building will be closed temporarily.

‘Hands, face, space’ is for everyone

But these measures cannot work without everybody’s commitment to rigorously observing the hands, face, space guidance – and I need your help and vigilance to achieve this. Our sites are not close contact settings – but only if people follow the procedures in place and maintain a distance from each other.

There has been no evidence that our sites are unsafe – independent Public Health advice indicates that community transmission is the most likely source of the vast majority of cases where court and tribunal users have tested positive. Where Public Health England/Public Health Wales identified a small handful of possible in-court transmission it found that these were likely to be a result of individuals – not all of them court staff – breaching hands-space-face guidance.

But I also recognise that the levels of concern have gone up and we continue to review all our measures to reassure all court and tribunal users that that our buildings are safe. Since the new strain of the virus and the increased transmissibility, we are supporting the Senior Presiding Judge’s guidance to the judiciary in support of the Lord Chief Justice’s message which included encouraging use of face coverings in court rooms. This will work alongside our other measures such as social distancing, ventilation, regular hand washing etc. We are also reducing numbers in courts and tribunals by encouraging more remote hearings and fewer on-site users.

We know that justice cannot stop. We also know what we can do to make our courts and tribunals COVID-secure. In both cases this needs to be a joint effort – we must work together.

I and HMCTS have a role to ensure safety measures are in place. We all have a role to follow the guidance.

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  1. Comment by Denis Mulhall posted on

    What are the incidences of COVID infection in the court system and how does this compare to society in general?

    • Replies to Denis Mulhall>

      Comment by HMCTS Communications Team posted on

      We keep a record of all those who tell us they have tested positive across a variety of court and tribunal-user groups, not just out frontline staff. They include staff working from home and other court and tribunal users who have not been into a court in weeks or (in some cases) months. The reality is that a minority of people have told us that they have tested positive and have been in to one of our buildings.

      Around 75% of our staff attend our sites daily, and yet incidents of positive COVID-19 tests among all staff (including those working from home) has generally tracked the English or Welsh national average throughout the pandemic. This is supported by Public Health advice, which indicates that community transmission is the most likely source of the vast majority of cases among court and tribunal users.

      • Replies to HMCTS Communications Team>

        Comment by Robert posted on

        The reason many of your staff have to attend offices is due to your continuing use of paper-based processes. As we've known about Covid for almost a year now, why haven't you grasped the opportunity to modernise and drive manual handling of paper out of your systems?

  2. Comment by NMB posted on

    Last week I had to spend an hour at court with a prisoner client and interpreter in a very small unventilated space in the custody area. The room was so small we were all within touching distance and the table provided for use was about 50cm in width. The client was not provided with a mask. The custody staff who I dealt with did not wear masks.

    I had been led to believe that there would be telephone-access only to my client, but the cell staff said this had not been installed.

    The Advocates' Room had a sign on the door suggesting a maximum of 4 users; there were 8 users and none were masked.

    Some security staff wore masks around their neck unless and until they spoke.

    I had to use a conference room in the public area of there court. Prior to my using it, 5 unmasked people were using it for 45 minutes. It was a tiny room, and there was no ventilation. It was not cleaned or ventilated before I used it.

    The majority of solicitors did not wear masks when walking around the public areas.

    8 members of the public in the waiting area wore no masks, claiming they were excused. One of them coughed persistently for the 3 hours I saw her. the security staff on the door said they could not require anyone to wear a mask.

    Meanwhile, I was required to wait in this environment for 7 hours whilst the CPS tried to locate their papers in my case.

    At no time did anyone at court ask any of these court users to wear a face covering.

    Which aspects of this are compliant with your Covid-safe policy?

    I ought to say that inside the courtroom itself, the measures were very much more strict.

    • Replies to NMB>

      Comment by HMCTS Communications Team posted on

      Thank you for drawing this to our attention. We’re extremely disappointed to hear that you have seen people within the court not following the guidance and measures we’ve put in place to make our sites COVID-safe. It is imperative on everyone on site to follow these rules. Our team will be in contact with you to get details of the court where this happened so that we can address matters quickly and appropriately.

  3. Comment by Denis Mulhall posted on

    Are the elderly (70+) being summonsed for jury duty during the pandemic? If so, how can this be justified?

    • Replies to Denis Mulhall>

      Comment by HMCTS Communications Team posted on

      In line with section 1 of the Juries Act 1974, jurors can be aged 18-75. At the point of summoning, HMCTS only have a person’s name and postal address, so we cannot automatically exclude anyone based on age. In the information we send out with the summons, we explain that jurors can apply to defer their service, or be excused entirely if they are not able to serve at any time within the next 12 months. Each application is considered on its own merit, however in the current situation HMCTS is, of course, considering applications favourably from those who have been advised by the government to stay at home because they are particularly vulnerable. Those who wish to discuss their personal circumstances should call the Jury Central Summoning Bureau on 0300 456 1024 or if their jury service is due to start within the next week, they should contact the court directly. There is more information on how coronavirus is affecting jury service on GOV.UK.

      • Replies to HMCTS Communications Team>

        Comment by Denis Milhsll posted on

        I think this reply ignores the point raised. Some people (70+) have been very careful during the 11 months. Now they are being asked to expose themselves in a way completely at odds with their behaviour. The fact that HMCTS is ignorant of their age does not justify these court summons.

        What kind of example are you setting to society. Ignorance is no defence.

    • Replies to Denis Mulhall>

      Comment by BW posted on

      Comment on the Law Gazette that refers to this post.

      Woman in 70's who is clinically extremely vulnerable called for Jury Service.
      She asked for deferment and was refused!

      So much for considering people's applications favourably.

  4. Comment by Arthur Michael Robinson posted on

    Aerosols. There’s lots of evidence that coronavirus aerosols linger for much longer than droplets.
    Ventilation is a real issue in court buildings including custody areas.
    Ventilation is a great way to disperse droplets and aerosols.
    The lack of sneeze screens in court custody consultation rooms can’t be ignored. Likewise the lack of sneeze screens in court rooms, poor ventilation in court rooms and the lack of consideration of coronavirus aerosols means describing Court buildings as safe is an overstatement.